Yesterday, I wrote about how there's a difference between helping a depressed friend and enabling an abuser. My intention was to inform those whose friends suffer from mental illness to be compassionate... but remember to think critically about your actions and the effects they may have on your friend and his/her partner.
Today, I'm writing a quick reminder to those who are, or may be, affected by mental illness:
Your partner is not your emotional slave.
It's really easy to look back on childhood and feel nostalgic. Childhood is amazing. We have no responsibilities except to learn and have fun!
But you know what's really cool about not being in preschool anymore?
The ability to regulate our own emotions.
The ability to be independent. To calm ourselves down. To set our own bedtimes. To resolve our own issues.
Another cool thing about adulthood is romantic relationships. I've been so, so lucky in love. I've had the best boyfriends. They were kind, loving, supportive, smart, fun, funny, and adventurous...
But they were not my emotional slaves.
Sure, if something really bad happened to me, I'd expect them to be there for me.
But I would never demand that they soothe me while I have meltdowns every night, ongoingly, indefinitely.
Sure, I love being cute and flirty and childish with them.
I may feel all the joy of a preschooler at play when I'm with my partner... but that doesn't mean I am actually in preschool again. It's still my responsibility to regulate my own emotions.
If there is something my partner can do to help, I tell him, because people aren't mind-readers, and it's not fair to expect them to be. And I do it directly, because I consider it my moral obligation to ignore passive aggression.
But, ultimately, it is my responsibility to take care of myself.
It's my responsibility to know when it is time to go to bed, because we both have work in the morning, and WE ARE ADULTS, NOT CHILDREN.
Similarly, it's my responsibility to get to work on time. If some disagreement popped up over breakfast... who cares? There's, like, a 0.00001% chance this is an issue you need to resolve right now. Finish your eggs, hug it out, and get to work. You can talk about it later.
It's my responsibility to know when to end a fight, because right now, we're both too worked up and this isn't going anywhere.
It's my responsibility to understand and respect my partner's emotions, too. If he needs a break from a difficult conversation, if he needs a night to himself -- hell, if he wants to go on vacation without me, it's my responsibility to respect that, too. (Though I'd definitely want to have a conversation about why he wanted that, to see if I could address any of his concerns or get the proper training before the trip or whatever.)
Even though quality time is important, and even though everyone feels lonely or like they don't have enough friends sometimes, it's important to remember that he doesn't have to do absolutely everything with me, and I don't have to do absolutely everything with him. I'm a big girl. I can join my own frisbee team. I can drive myself to the party.
And... as a healthy, happy adult, it is my responsibility to myself to give friends and loved ones the benefit of a doubt. As I wrote in Next Time Someone Says Something That Hurts You, Ask Yourself These Two Questions:
We all get hurt by words that were not intended to hurt us.
This is something I consider myself to be pretty good at... yet even I feel super embarrassed, sometimes, replaying a conversation in my head or re-reading a chat that turned into an argument -- all because someone said something that was clearly meant one way, but I took it another.
Is it true?
Are you sure?
Is it true?
Are you sure?
If someone says something and you took it the wrong way and they apologized and clarified, then, as an adult, it's your responsibility not to pout, but to forgive and move on. (Or, if you can't forgive them, to end it. For more, check out Loving What Is.)
Another cool thing about being an adult is that you have developed your theory of mind, or the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc. — to oneself, AND to others. You're old enough to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from your own.
And, hopefully, you're old enough to understand that not everything your partner does is meant to hurt you. In fact, one of the most satisfying things you can do in a relationship is to take something that stung, some disappointment, and turn it into an act of love.
For example -- and this is about a friend, not a significant other, but still -- I was so excited about contra dancing the other weekend. It was a particularly uneventful weekend, so contra was basically the only thing I had to look forward to that Saturday.
When I messaged my friend, Paul, who'd agreed to go with me a week prior, he had some bad news:
"I can go... but only until 9, because I have so much work this week."
Which is basically just one hour of dancing. I was really disappointed. I love dancing, and I love spending time with Paul.
I could have been resentful. I could have made him feel more stressed than he already was (which, I suppose, short-term, achieves the vindictive, and childish goal of "punishing" him for his crime against me... but, long-term, I'd only be hurting myself, as I'd be making myself less fun to be with, meaning he'd want to spend even less time with me in the future).
But instead... I used my adult skills. I used my theory of mind, my compassion for someone other than myself. I thought about what a busy week he has coming up... and I wondered how I could help.
Basically, I can't. I can't make his job any easier. I can't make his work take any less time. I can't push back his deadlines.
Show up with fresh fruit and enough prepared food to get him through the next few days, so he at least has one less thing to worry about.
So that's what I did.
He was surprised, and a little delighted, by the yummy gifts. But the best moment, for me, was when he took a bite of my teriyaki chicken and said, "I'm so excited to be going out. This will be really good for me."
It felt so much better than dragging him down, punishing him, or guilting him.
In fact, every time I forgive someone, every time I show love or compassion instead of resentment, self-pity, and anger, I feel so amazing inside, I can't believe anyone would ever choose the alternative. (Even though, I guess, it's "easier"... and we've all got that instinct for idleness.)
It's vaguely what I was getting at in my original (which is also about basketball), "Respect the Call (Better to Forgive)."
Because, as adults, our friends, partners, and loved ones are not our emotional slaves.
If we expect them to endlessly provide a shoulder to cry on...
Anticipate our each and every need...
Constantly be doing something to control our emotions...
Constantly sacrificing sleep and opportunities for fun, socialization, or travel...
We're not truly treating them like partners. We're treating them like emotional slaves.
We're not acting like adults. We're acting like preschoolers.
If you truly require that much care, you may benefit from talk therapy or medication. It may be worth meeting with a professional to identify and prevent toxic thoughts and behaviors that keep you from behaving like an independent adult.
It's... not easy. But it's possible. Social and emotional skills are just that: skills. You're not born with them, but you're born able to learn them. Sure, some people learn them more easily than others... just like some people need a math tutor.
For your own sake, and for your partner's sake, it's worth trying to learn them.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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